Eleven-year-old Triss wakes up to discover she almost drown in the millpond called, The Grimmer. Her sister, Pen, is a witness to the accident but won't talk to Triss. The two take sibling rivalry to the hate level with their parents exacerbating the relationship by being quick to blame Pen for anything that goes wrong and needing Triss to be sick all the time. When dolls come to life and Triss starts eating objects that are not humanly possible, she knows that something twisty happened in the pond. As she unravels the mystery, she discovers a plot that involves her entire family tied up with a marginalized magical group displaced from their homes after World War I.
Frances Hardinge's writing is better than the norm with its euphonious voice, word choice, and sentence structure. Let's step back a second and think about how writing is comprised of literal or nonliteral meanings of words. Literal meanings are words at their basic sense with no exaggeration or figurative language. Nonliteral meanings is figurative language that requires critical thinking skills to determine meanings. Educators teach students about similes, metaphors, symbolism, imagery, and more to help them understand narrative texts and form abstract connections between two concepts. Hardinge uses nonliteral meanings like drenching a tall stack of pancakes in syrup. She uses so many that it can feel overdone at times, but here, her frenetic pace of piling similes-upon-similes helps build the tension and horror of an alternate world that ripples and moves in a dreamy way, but is filled with very human characters dealing with universal themes. It works. And it is brilliant.
Nonliteral meanings flit throughout the plot creating strong characters, atmosphere, and strength to themes. As Triss explodes in confusion, hunger, and terror after first waking up from almost drowning, the narration explains: "Everytime she closed her eyes she could sense dreams waiting at the mousehole of her mind's edge, ready to catch her up in their soft cat-mouth and carry her off somewhere she did not want to go." She gets up and starts eating unripe apples from the tree and when they are done digs into the rotten ones on the ground. Her parents spoil her and want her to be dependent on them. The loss their son in the war has caused them to be overprotective in an unhealthy way. They want to Triss to be ill so they can save her over and over again like they could not save their son. Triss pretends to be ill because it pleases them, but it is isolating her from making friends, alienating Pen, and preventing her from leading a healthy life. This twisted relationship is one of many things that leaves a gaping hole in Triss; a hunger that can't be satiated and magnified in her monstrous eating of objects.
When Pen tells Triss she's getting everything wrong, Triss thinks "The younger girl's incomprehensible words boiled and seethed in Triss's mind like a shoal of piranhas, and Triss's desperation was swiftly replace by a flood of frustration and resentment." Triss has manipulated her parents and Pen has become the bad child. The two can't even talk the resentment runs so deep. It isn't until Pen's life is at stake and they are forced to help each other that they start working together and deal with their problems. As their world unravels in unpredictable ways, they become closer and Triss becomes more protective. The family members love each other, but after the death of the oldest son in the war their love has warped and buckled like a water-logged floorboard. They must face their grief before they can heal and move forward in their lives.
The transformation of Triss from a human to something not human reminded me of Franz Kafka's "Metamorphosis," but other parts reminded me of different fairy tales and classics. The alternate world felt like "Alice in Wonderland" with the absurd characters and shops. The scissor crazed tailor reminds of the boy getting his thumbs cut off for sucking his thumbs by a tailor in "Strulwwelpeter." The music in the village is like the Pied Piper of Hamlin luring children to danger. Peter Pan who lives forever and doesn't want to grow up is similar to Triss not being allowed to grow up. Pinocchio wanting to be real and telling lies parallels the some of the plot as well. While I was reminded of all these different types of stories, Hardinge makes this her own unique and stunning creation that reminds readers that stories can be a threshold to different ways of thinking about the world.
Hardinge has many complex themes that swirl and spill through the plot like smoky tendrils; struggles with good and evil, right and wrong, truth and lies, certainty and uncertainty, marginalized people in the world, war and destruction, monsters and not monsters, independence and dependence, and more. As Jack Zipes explains in his book, "Relentless Progress: The Reconfiguration of Children's literature, Fairy Tales, and Storytelling," this is the heart of storytelling for it enlightens readers on moral and ethical decisions in society and works as a civilizing agent. Here, fantasy not only amuses but helps readers understand complexities in life to get along better in the world, as well as gain self-understanding.
Lies and truths simmer like a jazz-song theme, where the instruments fight over the tune and sound as "noisy and irrepressible as a farmyard," throughout the plot. Parents can't tell when Triss is pretending or being real. When Triss speaks the truth they bring her to a mental hospital. The family has become so immersed in lies that they don't want to hear the truth. The father has lied about his career. The parents have lied about their son's death. Triss has lied about being ill. Pen and Violet are the two that can tell fake from real making them catalysts in the action. Triss is like Pinocchio in that she wants to be human; yet she must face the truth to do so and decide on right and wrong. Pen calls her a split version of good and bad, showing how each individual carries good and evil within but can make a choice as to how her or she wants to be in life. "But the dark always finds its way into the stories, does it not? The stories worth hearing, at least. The true lies." Stories need to show conflicts and enlighten if they are to awaken the consciousness in readers.
I think I will stop or this is going to become more of an English paper than book review. Perhaps it already has drifted too much in that direction. While the book is marketed for young adults it is appropriate for younger readers that need to be challenged with a more complex plot and higher level of reading. Rat-a-tat with this cuckoo song. You won't be disappointed.